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The Evolution of the Easter Story

If you read the resurrection stories in chronological order, that is, first Mark 16:1-8, then Matthew 28, then Luke 24 and John 20–21, you will notice that the tendency is to emphasize more and more the presence of the risen Jesus, either to commission the apostles to preach the gospel, or to prove that he was really risen in a bodily way.

See Also: Revisiting the Empty Tomb (Fortress Press, 2010)

By Daniel A. Smith
Faculty of Theology
Huron University College
October 2011

Christian tradition, practically since its very beginning, has tended to combine the individual gospel accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb and of the appearances of the risen Jesus into a single “Easter story.” This can be seen in paintings of the resurrection, for example, in Giotto di Bondone’s “Noli Me Tangere”, one of many panels he painted for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy between 1304 and 1306 C.E. The painting shows Mary Magdalene meeting the risen Jesus at the tomb.1 This encounter, which is described only in the Gospel of John (John 20:14-17), takes place in the presence of the sleeping guards and two angels sitting on the tomb, details from the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 28:2-5).2

Giotto’s approach is quite typical, in that he combined several related narrative elements in a single frame, rather than rendering a “snapshot” of a single event or incident. A much earlier example of this kind of artistic conflation can be found in an ivory panel from around 400 C.E. which shows, at the bottom, the women approaching the tomb and meeting an angel surrounded by sleeping guards, and, at the top, Jesus ascending into heaven in the presence of two disciples.3 Apparently, it was not a problem that these details are found in different gospels, or in different times in the “Easter story.”

We can see a different kind of conflation in attempts to combine information from the different gospels into one (and, if possible, coherent) textual “Easter story.” These attempts are quite ancient: already in the Gospel of Peter (2nd century C.E.) one finds bits and pieces from different canonical tomb and appearance stories combined together with new details into one very expansive resurrection story.4 The Gospel of Peter even narrates the descent of angels from heaven to help the rising Jesus on his way out of the tomb (Gos. Pet. 10.38-42). It might be tempting to try to dismiss the Gospel of Peter’s empty tomb story as an example of “apocryphal” literary or legendary creativity, but Augustine (354–430 C.E.) also wanted to combine the different stories together into one.

Augustine had a very specific motivation, however. He went to great lengths in his book “On the Consensus of the Evangelists” to show that the gospel writers never really disagree, even when they seem to disagree – there is always some way to reconcile what appear to be conflicting historical details. To solve the discrepancy between Mark and Matthew (who both mention only one angel at the tomb) and Luke and John (who mention two), Augustine assumed that there were really two angels present. Mark only tells us what one of them does, and ignores the other one; Matthew tells us what the other one does, and ignores the angel Mark tells us about; and Luke and John tell us what both angels do and say, but at different times and in different places in relation to the tomb.5

This is a bit of a tricky endeavor, and it involved creating a new story-line which is incredibly complex, but there is a great deal at stake in it for Augustine: like some contemporary readers of the Bible, he assumes that if the gospels really are historically true, then every single detail they contain must be historically true. One should therefore be able to combine all these details into a single coherent story. Augustine said this can and should be done, “as long as the Lord is helping us,” so that “it may be known that they [the gospel writers] said everything correctly, without any contradictions.”6

The problem with this approach is that in attempting to guarantee the historicity of the details in the stories, or to safeguard them from the charge that they contradict each other, it overlooks the importance of the stories themselves, and how they functioned rhetorically in the various communities that originally used and valued them. After all, those earliest communities did not yet have the four gospels collected together so that they could be compared and combined! This approach also sees the differences or contradictions between the stories as a historical problem, rather than as clues that can show how the individual stories were composed and were meant to function. Each gospel writer wrote his own version of the empty tomb and appearance stories as the unique conclusion for that particular gospel, and not as an account to be mined for its historical facts.

In order to understand Mark, for example, it is important to recognize that the risen Jesus does not appear in its conclusion (Mark 16:1-8). The author clearly knew that Jesus appeared after his crucifixion to certain followers – the “young man” at the tomb says to the women that they should tell the disciples and Peter that they would see the risen Jesus in Galilee (Mark 16:7) – but as far as we can tell, he chose not to describe these appearances.7 In the same way, to take two other examples, it is important for Luke that Peter visits the empty tomb and sees for himself that the women’s report is true (Luke 24:12), and it is important for Matthew that the tomb is being guarded at the request of Jesus’ Jewish opponents (Matt 27:62-66; 28:4, 11-15). It is probably more accurate to think that these different details grew into the story as it was told and retold (written and rewritten), than to think that the gospel writers had access to a set of well-known facts or reports about the discovery of the empty tomb and the various resurrection appearances from which they took the raw materials for their own stories.

At the very beginning, however, it seems that there were two different ways of thinking or talking about the afterlife of Jesus. On the one hand, Paul talks about the appearances of the risen Jesus, but nowhere mentions the empty tomb. In 1 Cor 15:3-8, Paul quotes an ancient confessional statement that says, “Christ died ... was buried ... was raised ... appeared to Cephas [Peter],” and so on. There is quite a long list that follows, in which certain people to whom the risen Jesus appeared are named; this is good evidence that there were also stories circulating in those days of how he appeared, what he said, and how his followers reacted.

But notice how 1 Cor 15:3-8 does not mention the empty tomb. It may be, as some scholars claim, that Paul (or rather, the confessional statement he used) simply assumed that everyone knew the tomb had to be empty if people like Peter and himself claimed they had seen him raised from the dead. N. T. Wright says that “the mention of ‘buried, then raised’ no more needs to be amplified than one would need to amplify the statement ‘I walked down the street’ with the qualification ‘on my feet’.”8 But in my opinion we still have a bit of a puzzle here, for Paul himself does not refer to the empty tomb in his long argument in support of the resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15). Judging from his writings, the most we can say is that if Paul knew traditions or stories about the empty tomb, he did not find them useful to his argument. What we can say with certainty is that Paul’s emphasis is entirely upon the appearances of the risen Jesus, for in his own experience that was how God authenticated his apostolic calling (see Gal 1:15-16; 1 Cor 9:1; 15:8-11).

In contrast, the earliest form of the empty tomb story, in Mark 16:1-8, is really not much of a resurrection story, since (as mentioned above) the risen one does not make an appearance – even though the young man at the tomb announces that Jesus has been raised from the dead (Mark 16:6). Of course, the author of Mark seems to have known about stories of the risen Jesus appearing and commissioning certain followers (Mark 16:7; see also Mark 14:28). So why doesn’t Mark end with such a story? As many scholars have noted, Mark’s empty tomb story has a lot in common with stories, found in both Jewish and Greco-Roman sources, in which a person is taken away into the divine realm by God (or the gods).9 These are called “rapture stories” or “assumption stories.” Such stories were told of figures such as Herakles and Romulus in the Greco-Roman tradition, and Elijah and Enoch in the Jewish tradition. Sometimes these stories describe how the hero is taken up and away into heaven, but an important aspect was always how those left behind on earth searched for them and, because they could not find them or their physical remains, concluded that the gods (or God) had given them a special honor, or even deified them.10 This, for example, is what the young husband Chaereas concludes when he finds his wife’s tomb open and empty in the Greek novel “Chaereas and Callirhoe” by Chariton of Aphrodisias (1st century C.E.).11

Mark’s empty tomb story, in a similar way, puts a greater emphasis on how Jesus is gone (though raised from the dead) and on the reaction of the disciples he has left bereft (Mark 16:8), much as Jesus said earlier in the gospel: “But days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them [the wedding guests], and then they will fast, on that day” (Mark 2:20). Where Paul focuses on how the presence of the risen Jesus makes him an apostle, for Mark it is important that this sense of absence, this crisis of discipleship, be the final note of the gospel. The author and his community evidently were acutely aware of the trials that they thought were ushering in the coming of Jesus the Son of Man (Mark 13:14-27), who for a time left his followers on their own.

If this is correct, then the two primitive ideas about Jesus’ afterlife – both of which have to do with his miraculous vindication by God – were resurrection (and appearances) on the one hand, and assumption (and disappearance) on the other. Many scholars have acknowledged the variety of ideas early Christians experimented with in order to express what they believed had happened to Jesus.12 But if Mark tells his empty tomb story as a resurrection story, and if the other gospel writers clearly think that the tomb was empty because Jesus was raised from the dead out of it, not taken into heaven directly, then it seems we have do not have much basis for the claim that some early Christians applied the idea of assumption to Jesus.13 Yet there is another small clue, this time not from Mark, but from the Synoptic Sayings Source Q. The Sayings Source Q (or, as it is sometimes called, the Sayings Gospel Q) is what scholars call the collection of Jesus-sayings that was used by Matthew and Luke, together with Mark as a narrative source, in composing their gospels.14

In Q, and now in Matt 23:37-39 and Luke 13:34-35, we find the following saying, in which Jesus laments the unresponsiveness of the people of Jerusalem:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her – how often did I desire to gather your children, like a hen gathers her nestlings under her wings, but you were not willing. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, “Blessed is the Coming One in the name of the Lord!”

The saying focuses on the death of the prophets, but it also seems to presuppose Jesus’ own rejection in Jerusalem, and his own violent death. Especially interesting is the expression “You will not see me until ...”, which uses the same language found in assumption stories – the idea being that when God (or the gods) takes someone away into the divine realm, people see them no more. In the story about Elijah’s assumption in 2 Kings 2, the prophet knows in advance what will happen to him, and when it does, the story is told from the perspective of Elisha, his successor. He watched Elijah go up in the whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11), and “when he could see him no longer” Elisha tore his own garments (v. 12). This is the same “not-seeing” language we find in the Jerusalem saying from Q. What is more, later Jewish tradition understood that because Elijah had been taken in the body into heaven, God had preserved him for a special role in the end of the age.15 The Q saying seems to understand Jesus in a similar role, for it predicts that after not seeing him, Jerusalem will see him again, and acclaim him as “the one who is to come” at that time.

With these two core ideas of resurrection (and appearance) and assumption (and disappearance) at the very beginning, in Paul and in Mark and Q respectively, later versions of the empty tomb story in Matthew, Luke, John, the Gospel of Peter, and other sources can be understood as later retellings or rewritings, with resurrection (and appearance) becoming more and more prominent.16 In other words, if you read the resurrection stories in chronological order, that is, first Mark 16:1-8, then Matthew 28, then Luke 24 and John 20–21, you will notice that the tendency is to emphasize more and more the presence of the risen Jesus, either to commission the apostles to preach the gospel,17 or to prove that he was really risen in a bodily way.18 This is seen, for instance, in the accounts of the risen Jesus appearing at the tomb (Matt 28:9-10; John 20:14-17). And yet there are still traces of the influence of the assumption (disappearance) view in certain details.19

Reading the resurrection stories in sequence helps us to see how they have developed over time, incorporating new narrative details and the distinctive traits of the gospel writers and their community interests. In some cases, the new details do not seem to have been simply invented by the gospel writers, but seem to be based on stories that were circulating orally. In other cases, however, the new details are best understood as inventions or alterations that put a new twist into the story.

One example is Luke’s brief note that Peter went, after hearing the women’s report, to inspect the empty tomb himself (Luke 24:12; see also John 20:3-10).20 There are a few passages in Luke’s gospel that show that the author viewed Peter as the primary resurrection witness. Luke seems to have thought Peter was the first to see the risen Jesus, and he depicts him as the chief spokesman for the apostles when it comes to preaching about the resurrection.21 Interestingly, as the story unfolds in Luke 24, Jesus first appears to the two disciples as they walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32); but when they return to Jerusalem, they find the Eleven already announcing that “the Lord has indeed been raised, and has appeared to Simon” (Luke 24:34). So it is the appearance to Peter that gives rise to the resurrection proclamation – and not the experience of the women at the tomb, or of the disciples on the road.

Now language about appearances can be vague, at least where the nature of the experience is concerned. Did Jesus appear to Peter in a vision, or in a “real” event? Neither 1 Cor 15:5 nor Luke 24:34 makes that clear.22 So Peter, the primary resurrection witness (in Luke’s view), confirms for himself that the tomb is really empty even before he sees the risen Jesus. This means two things. First, the story of the women was true. Second, when Jesus did appear to his followers, he did so in the same body which once was lying dead in the tomb.23 It is debatable whether or not Luke 24:12 is a creation of the author, but it is not as important to answer this question as it is to understand how this verse contributes to Luke’s story and its theological significance.

The evolution of the Easter story is, of course, worth much deeper study than this essay can accomplish. The different resurrection accounts contain many details like the ones considered here, and they can sometimes be puzzling; but if as readers we focus less on reconciling conflicting details and more on understanding how each story works in relation to the gospel in which we find it, we will gain new insight into the impact these stories originally had in the lives and communities of those who first read, valued, and were shaped by them.


1 “Noli me tangere” is Latin for “Do not touch me,” which is what Jesus says to Mary in John 20:17. The painting may be seen at

2 Actually, Matt 28:2 says that only one angel descended from heaven and sat on the stone, but both John 20:12 and Luke 24:4 say there were two angels at the tomb.

3 The panel can be seen at; it is also featured on the cover of Daniel A. Smith, Revisiting the Empty Tomb: The Early History of Easter (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), and discussed briefly on pp. 7-8.

4 The story is worth reading, not for what it tells us about the “historical events” surrounding the resurrection, but for what it tells us about how second-century Christians were thinking about the significance of the resurrection. Various translations of the Gospel of Peter can be found online at For the Gospel of Peter’s date and relationship to the canonical gospels, see Paul Foster, “The Gospel of Peter,” Expository Times 118.7 (2007), 318-25, esp. 323-5.

5 Augustine, de Cons. Ev. 3.24.63, 67-69.

6 Augustine, de Cons. Ev. 3.25.70.

7 Biblical scholars agree that Mark 16:9-20 as a second-century addition to the gospel, but not everyone thinks Mark intended to end his gospel at 16:8. For the view that Mark’s author knew traditions about how the story continued, see, on this website, James F. McGrath, “Mark’s Missing Ending: Clues from the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Peter,”

8 N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (London: SPCK; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 321.

9 Probably the first scholar to suggest that the empty tomb story is best understood (in terms of its genre) as an assumption story was Elias Bickermann, “Das leere Grab,” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 23 (1924): 281-92; see also Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 791-4, who thinks the idea or motif of assumption has influenced how Mark narrates (the after-effects of) the resurrection of Jesus.

10 For a fuller discussion, see Smith, Revisiting, 47-61.

11 Chariton, Chaer. 3.3.1-7. For an English translation, see G. P. Goold (ed. and trans.), Chariton, Callirhoe (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995); the relevant passage is given in Smith, Revisiting, 47.

12 See, for example, James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 866-70.

13 The idea of assumption was applied to Jesus in Luke and other later sources, but as an event which took place after the resurrection (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:9-11; see also John 20:17).

14 Q is a hypothetical source-text, whose existence is postulated on the two suppositions that (1) Matthew and Luke used Mark as their main narrative source, but (2) worked independently of one another. Q explains the great similarity in language, order, and thematic interests of the material which Matthew and Luke share in common but which is not found in Mark (e.g., the teaching about worry in Matt 6:25-33 and Luke 12:22-31). For a handy introduction to Q, including an English translation of Q, see John S. Kloppenborg, Q, The Earliest Gospel: An Introduction to the Original Stories and Sayings of Jesus (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2008).

15 See Mal 4:5-6; Sir 48:9-10. Similar views were held about other such figures, Enoch for example.

16 To be clear: I do not think that the “assumption” idea is earlier or more primitive than “resurrection.” (See Smith, Revisiting, 76-8.) I do think, however,that some of Jesus’ followers were using different theological categories to try to put words to what they thought “really” happened to Jesus after his death.

17 See Matt 28:18-20; Luke 24:44-49; John 20:19-23.

18 See Luke 24:36-43; John 20:24-29. On Luke 24:36-43, see Daniel A. Smith, “Seeing a Pneuma(tic Body): The Apologetic Interests of Luke 24:36-43,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 72.4 (2010): 752-72.

19 For example, Jesus speaks of his return to the Father in John using language similar to that found in the Q saying: “A little while and you see me no longer; and again a little while and you will see me again” (John 16:16; see also John 7:33-36; 8:21-24; 13:33). Or, in Matt 28:2, an angel descends from heaven and rolls the stone away to show that Jesus is no longer inside; if the stone was not rolled away to let the risen Jesus out (as in Gos. Pet. 10.38-42, mentioned above), then one way to understand this is to suppose that Jesus has already been taken bodily into the heavenly realm, whence he later appears to his disciples in Galilee (Matt 28:16-20). Another answer appears later in Christian literature: the same risen Jesus whose body could pass through locked doors (John 20:19, 26) could also miraculously get out of a tomb sealed with a stone and guarded by soldiers.

20 Luke 24:12 is missing from some early manuscripts, but it probably was originally in Luke’s gospel. For more information, see Smith, Revisiting, 115-18, and the literature cited there.

21 See Luke 22:32; 24:34; see also 1 Cor 15:5. In Acts (also written by the author of Luke), Peter preaches about the resurrection of Jesus to nonbelievers (see Acts 2:14-26; 3:12-26; 4:8-12).

22 Both Paul and Luke use the Greek word ophthe, which in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) is used to describe how the Lord God appeared to the patriarchs (e.g., to Jacob in a dream, in Gen 31:13). In the Septuagint stories that use this word, the emphasis is more on the presence of God and on its power to reveal than on the “reality” of the experience.

23 The point is also made quite graphically in Luke 24:36-43. For more discussion, see Smith, “Seeing a Pneuma(tic Body).”

Comments (1)

With reference to Wright's remarks - 'I walked down the muddy road' probably implies 'I left footprints' but does not imply 'the footprints were noticed by observers (which proves my story)'. 'The grave was empty' does not imply 'the emptiness of the grave was noted by witnesses'. Lack of reference to witnesses is omission of, not implicit reference to, something that would support the basic argument.
#1 - Martin - 11/15/2011 - 16:53

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